My Mom will be the first to tell you that as a child, I was a notoriously picky eater. Anything new was immediately disliked before even being tasted, and I seem to recall my Gram and Mom both having to come up with terribly creative stories in order to get me to try something, IE egg drop soup: "These are dinosaur eggs - I had to climb into the Pterodactyl nest and steal them while it was out hunting for prey." (One of my favorite shows was "Land of the Lost" as a kid...the sleestaks alternately fascinated and terrified me, and dinosaurs were always cool in my book.) Fast forward 10 years and I'd become a far more adventurous eater. By the time I'd met Bear, I had broadened my culinary horizons quite considerably - Indian food was a favorite, sushi was a delight, calamari, well OK, I always ate calamari (because Gram said they were "rubber bands") but you get the idea. I'd branched out, grown up, new food wasn't this horribly daunting thing to me anymore...till I came face to face with Collard Greens. No sir. Not gonna happen. Nope.
For those of us who live in the South, we're well aware of the gravity of the above statement. Greens are a staple here, and each family has their own special recipe for how they're cleaned, prepared and cooked it seems. My husband has his own recipe, and so it happened that he decided to fix me a batch while I was recuperating from being ill. I awoke from my nap to this strange smell...I couldn't quite put my finger on it, save for the fact that it was unlike anything I'd ever smelled before, and didn't care to be smelling at present. Giant green leaves adorned my kitchen sink, and on the counter top, an opened package of something I'd never heard of: fatback. I think the conversation went something like this:
Me: What is that? (pointing to the fatback)
Me: Yes, but what IS it?
Bear: Exactly what it says it is.
Me: I don't know what fatback is.
Bear: It's salted pork fat that you use to season beans & greens.
Me: Eeeeew. Gross!
I think I may have (oh so maturely) even covered my mouth with both my hands at that point. You have to understand, I was raised in an Italian family, we didn't use pork fat to cook anything in. Sausages in the sauce, sure, but plain salted pork fat? What flavor could that possibly impart? Grease? It wasn't even refrigerated! Surely this would be rancid.
After our entire apartment thoroughly reeked of cooked Collard Greens, Bear judged them done and delicious. He gave me a small helping from the serving bowl, and I bravely tasted them. Oh! What is this wondrous flavor? What is this delightfully yummy, perfectly seasoned stuff? This can't be the same stuff that stinks to high heaven, this is Uh-maz-ing! I vaguely recall grabbing the serving bowl and eating as much of this green goodness as I possibly could while Bear looked on smugly.
And so, my introduction to Southern cuisine began.
Collard Greens are a great source of vitamins A and K, and fiber. Like I said before, every family has this own way of preparing them, but this is how we do ours, here. I've tweaked Bear's recipe a bit, but he's given it his stamp of approval, so here it goes:
The Dixie Fried Bride's Collard Greens
1 large bunch collard greens
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 strips salted fat back, cut into 2" pieces
6 strips bacon, cut into 1" pieces
1/4 Tsp Cayenne Pepper (add more if you want a kick to your greens)
1 Tbsp Red Pepper Flakes
1 Tsp White Pepper
1 Tsp Black Pepper
1 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar, optional
Olive Oil - just enough to coat the sides & bottom of the pot, I use my Misto for this
Enough water to just cover the greens
Separate all the leaves, and wash thoroughly until absolutely no grit is left on the leaves. Let leaves dry a little while you dice the onion and mince the garlic. Coat the sides and bottom of a large, tall sided pot, put in your fat back and cook over medium high heat. The fat back should become slightly translucent as you cook it, add in your bacon pieces next, and allow to become halfway cooked before adding in your onion. Add your garlic about a minute after you add in the onion to avoid it from becoming burnt and imparting a bitter taste. Saute onion and garlic, and add a scant 1 cup of water to the pot, and your peppers, reducing heat to medium low. This gives your greens a flavorful base to go into once your done with the next step.
Using kitchen shears, or a very sharp knife, cut out the thickest part of the fibrous stems, and put them aside. Cut your leaves into about 1 - 2 inch bits. Next, take the reserved stems and chop those into 1/2 inch bits. You don't have to use all the stems, and at this point you may already be annoyed at the amount of chopping you've had to do. You can forgo the stems altogether, but we like them.
Once your leaves and stems are chopped, add them into the pot. Add another cup of water, just enough to barely cover your greens, and simmer on medium heat for at least 45 minutes, or until tender. In the last 5-10 minutes of cooking, I like to add a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar - it just seems to give an extra layer to the flavors of the dish that really compliment it.
If you're feeling truly wicked, fry up a little extra bacon and crumble it over the greens once you've placed them in the serving bowl.
Our Thanksgiving table is never without Greens, and here in the South they're also traditional for New Year's - the green symbolizing money for the coming year.